French people don’t give a shit about lifestyle politics.
Okay, it’s a generalization, but—despite my short residence and limited language skills—there’s some truth to it. I saw it on May Day, among the anarchists selling Coca-Cola products and candy bars, and I saw it at a “zero waste” conference where the attendees couldn’t manage to get their paper plates into the recycle bin. But mostly, I see it every time I go to an activist event with food—and, being France, there’s always food—and am confronted by the wholesale lack of anything vegetarian. Even the incredibly low bar of having something that is not pork, in a country with a sizeable Muslim population, is rarely reached.
As someone coming from the Bay—the land of gluten-free, of re-useable shopping bags, of farmers’ market parking lots crammed with Priuses—this has been a bit of a jolt. But being in France has challenged me to re-evaluate my politics: in the face of climate change, of billions of animals slaughtered, of global labor exploitation, does the way I live actually matter? I’m pretty sure the chain-smoking, sweatshop-buying French communists I know would say “no.” In fact, in my (usually disastrous) forays into the French language, I’ve learned that talking about “la politique” makes no sense without referencing political parties or the state. In French, “lifestyle politics” is a bit like talking about “non-political politics.”
Much like universal healthcare, what is taken for granted in France is up for debate in the U.S. In fact, hating on lifestyle politics is totally huge on the left right now.* There’s the old Derrick Jensen article, “Forget Shorter Showers,” and the more recent “Stop Worrying About Your Carbon Footprint” that I’ve been sent three times. And—thankfully—sociologists have finally added their ever-weighty opinions to the matter. Exhibit one is Samatha MacBride’s (fantastic) Recycling Reconsidered, which pretty much dismembers the idea that recycling has any impact beyond making us feel good. Her conclusion that we need to “relegate notions of personal commitment and responsibility…to the backburner” pretty much sums up the post-lifestyle zeitgeist. It’s not just that buying local is useless—it’s that it actively detracts from useful things, be it direct action or harassing our Congressperson.
Okay, I get it: the old premise behind my veganism—that each of us could save 95 animals a year, starting today, thanks to the magical power of supply and demand—is bunk. Regardless of what the economists tell us, the world is not an aggregate of individual consumptive choices. But I still want to be vegan, and I’d like a reason a bit more utilitarian than just saying it’s the right thing to do.
Fortunately, even France managed to furnish a justification. I was at an anti-waste event the other week, sitting with a group of dumpster divers on the margins (scoffing at the respectable people in suits and their power point presentations and, you know, real political program for change), and one of the caterers on his break sat next to us. “Do you see how many beer bottles they’re leaving half-full?” he observed, “And they’re telling me I need to waste less?” Whatever we think of lifestyle politics, we have to acknowledge that, even as political actors, we are increasingly judged on personal criteria. We live in an age of heightened scrutiny, and our consistency matters—not because being consistent changes the world in itself, but because inconsistency is an easy excuse to discredit us.
There are other reasons, too, to keep taking shorter showers. We need to acknowledge the profound disempowerment that most people—even privileged people—feel today, and recognize that the one area where people do feel they have some efficacy is in their consumptive choices. If we are serious about the movement-building maxim of “starting where people are at,” we need to acknowledge that most people approach problems in their lives by purchasing something. What’s more, the glorying in the irrelevance of personal choices leaves me wondering how many activists actually want to live in the world they claim they’re trying to create through direct action and political organizing. Because guess what: you really are going to have to take shorter showers and eat less meat and buy less shit in our future utopia, even if you don’t see any of these as tactics to get us there.
Having a vegan option isn’t going to precipitate a revolution. But, to do a great injustice to Emma Goldman, it isn’t a revolution if I can’t have something ethical to eat.
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* I mean this, of course, referring to the tiny leftist echo chambers in which I exist. It’s kind of like how my punk friends and I thought the Dropkick Murphy’s were a “huge” band in 2003 because more than two people at my high school had heard of them.